TAPS: Help for the Families of Fallen Soldiers

For the families of fallen soldiers, loss is not the province of just one day. TAPS can help

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

TAPS is a high musical moan, part love song, part hymn. Composed in battle by a Civil War general to order lights-out, it also signaled that all was well: the day is over, you are safe, now rest. So it goes at military funerals: a last bugle call, a life is over, you are safe, now rest.

TAPS is also the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, and if you do nothing else this Memorial Day, take a moment to learn about what it does.

"It's a hard day for us," says Stephanie Dostie, whose husband Sergeant First Class Shawn Dostie was killed by an IED in Baghdad in 2005. For military families, loss recoils and ricochets: you live on or near a base, pick a portable career, get to know the other families. "You become part of the military family, and then in an instant, you're a civilian again," Dostie says. "Your whole life changes." Her family was allowed to stay in base housing at Fort Campbell for 12 months, but she had to fight for her children, who were 5 and 8, to remain at the base school after they moved off post. "The concern was that if we kept them in the school system, they were not moving on," Dostie recalls. She confronted Army officials: "'You cannot tell my children when they are moving on. They want to be with teachers who supported them when their dad died.' To me, it was cruel to remove them."

Death ends a life, says TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll. It does not end a relationship. What do you do with the boxes in the attic? How do you handle the grief? Honor the life and learn to make a new one.

Carroll founded TAPS in 1994, after her husband Brigadier General Tom Carroll died in the crash of an Army C-12 plane, to help surviving families find a safe place to land. It offers peer mentoring, grief counseling and all kinds of social support, and for five days over Memorial Day weekend there's a mass gathering in Washington that families like the Dosties attend. The kids go to a Good Grief camp, where they are matched with mentors, take tours, write journals, bond with other kids who have lost a parent. They lay wreaths made of their handprints, each with a message to their loved one, at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The adults attend workshops like Grief Support for Siblings, Dream Visits, Creating a Facebook Memorial, Coping with Suicide Loss. There is one conducted by military physicians called Did My Loved One Suffer? "It's a very tough session but always the most packed," says Carroll. "It's an opportunity for families who don't understand elements of a traumatic, horrific death to ask questions of absolute experts."

Almost every weekend, somewhere in America there is a gathering of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of survivors looking to help one another cope — 30,000 families registered to date. It is a far cry from the days of early Vietnam when the Army was so overwhelmed with casualties that it enlisted cabdrivers to deliver the telegrams with news of a soldier's death and when fierce opposition to the war sometimes translated to an inhuman lack of sympathy. "We'd hear things like 'We're glad he's gone. He was a baby killer,'" recalls Kit Frazer, president of Gold Star Wives of America. "It was a very unhappy time. Now there's an outpouring of love for widows and widowers and an attempt to help them." Children get medical and dental benefits until they are 21, rather than just for three years after the death; the Army has a 24-hour call center for survivors with benefits questions, a new family center at Dover Air Force Base and Survivor Outreach Services to coordinate the efforts.

But there is also, sadly, a growing need, which private groups like TAPS are serving. Many of today's soldiers are older — reservists or National Guard members — and more likely to leave a spouse and children behind, as well as grieving siblings and parents. Ask soldiers and survivors what they need from civilians, and it too has to do with memory. Fort Campbell is about to deploy again. "These troops want to know that we haven't forgotten that the war's not over," Dostie says. "Civilians need to understand that those guys are over there fighting for our lives and their lives and leaving behind families worried every day that they are going to get that knock on the door."

In my town on Memorial Day, we will wrap bikes with streamers and put bandannas on puppies and march in messy rows down Main Street behind the Cub Scouts and VFW and League of Women Voters. The flags will be flying and waving. Most of us haven't had to bear the presentation into our hands of a folded one. But somewhere close by, there is probably someone who has.